The Damned Emperors: Book I
Simon Turney (usually billed as S.J.A. Turney) has built up quite a following with his e-books set in the Roman army, especially the Marius’ Mules series. They’ve been at the edge of my consciousness for a while, so I welcomed the chance to have a taster of Turney’s writing via this new novel. It’s the first in a series which will focus on the deliciously colourful emperors of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. In tackling Caligula, however, Turney takes the same approach that Margaret George did with Nero, attempting to cut through the accretions of centuries of propaganda and legend, to reveal the man beneath. It’s a noble attempt, but not without its problems, as the Julio-Claudians are always at their most interesting when they’re barking mad.
The children of the great general Germanicus return home to Rome after his tragically early death. Under the guidance of their grieving mother Agrippina, they are brought up at a safe distance from the schemes and dangers of the imperial court. Our narrator, young Livilla, thinks of little beyond the charming circle of her family: her eldest brothers Nero and Drusus; her manipulative sister, also called Agrippina; sweet Drusilla; and her favourite brother Gaius, nicknamed Caligula (‘Little Boots’) by his father’s sentimental troops. It is Livilla who shows us Gaius in his youth: a precocious, charming and wary boy who understands the dangers of life within the imperial family – much better than any of his siblings. For this is the age of Tiberius, and death is in the air.
I first read about Tiberius in Robert Graves’s I Claudius and there’s something of the same quality about Turney’s languid and vicious emperor. Shadowed by the ambitious Sejanus, Tiberius grows more and more paranoid as he grows older. His eyes wander over his grandchildren, weighing and measuring them. First, he seems to favour Livilla’s big brothers Nero and Drusus – honest men, soldiers and citizens. But Rome is no longer a city that prizes honesty. And, as the emperor retreats to Capri, to wither away and indulge his vices in solitude, Rome begins to turn on itself. As Sejanus and his men cut swathes through the ruling classes, Livilla, Drusilla and Gaius find themselves increasingly isolated. When an invitation comes for them to visit Capri, they know that their fates now rest upon a knife-edge. Only Gaius will have the wit to keep them safe.
Turney has done a great deal of research to make sure that his story sticks to the known facts, and he has a very good point: that history is propaganda, more often than not. It’s most likely that Caligula wasn’t the raging lunatic imagined by Robert Graves and brought so chillingly to life by John Hurt in the I, Claudius TV series. But I can’t help feeling that Turney goes too far in the other direction. His Gaius is so precocious as to be unbelievable, exhibiting a political mind and a breadth of vocabulary which are frankly implausible in a child of ten. He seems to be already a grown man in a boy’s body. In some ways this is handy, as Gaius can always explain the finer details of Roman politics to Livilla – and thus to the reader. On the other hand, it means that conversations sometimes slip into info-dumping rather than realistic dialogue. Having said that, I had some sympathy with the overall picture, of Caligula as a well-meaning man who ended up being moulded into the monster that everyone around him believed he already was.
For me, another problem was Livilla herself. Not every author can write a convincing first-person narrative from the perspective of the opposite sex, and Livilla didn’t make a very convincing woman. From girlhood to the end, she’s Gaius’ shadow: a character who exists only to follow him, admire him and cherish him. Turney explains in his author’s note that he chose her because he needed someone who could be close to Gaius all the time – not, note, because he found anything interesting in Livilla herself. We have no real sense of her own growth to womanhood. She’s given a husband at one point, but he is conveniently kept away from her for long periods of time so that she can focus all her energies on her beloved brother (and no, I don’t mean ‘beloved’ in that way: Turney avoids all suggestion of anything naughty going on between the siblings). Essentially, she’s a kind of sounding board for Gaius: a mirror to reflect back his perfection to the reader, and to render his degeneration even more tragic. The problem is that I didn’t really find her that interesting and her narration felt no livelier than a standard third-person narrative. That’s a problem, in a way, when you sense that the author is much more interested in Character A than by the character through whose eyes they’ve chosen to tell the story. It grates a little.
By chance, I have another novel about Caligula waiting on my shelf. Judging by the cover, though, that’ll be cheerful swords-and-sandals tosh, rather than the novelised history that Turney has, commendably, tried to present here. No doubt all will be revealed in due course. I have to confess that I haven’t been left burning to read his other novels, although he clearly plans to continue the tale of the emperors. Next up, no doubt, we’ll have the tale of Caligula’s unpleasant, wily uncle Claudius; and we’ve already had a glimpse of Caligula’s little nephew Lucius (nicknamed ‘Nero’), the bonny son of his murderous sister Agrippina. Clearly, Rome is in for interesting times.
While I’m always curious to see an author offering a revisionist approach, this felt a little flat. I’m sure that Caligula was occasionally, like Nero, a jolly good chap and that his family were very fond of him (until he turned on them), but I can’t help thinking that the salacious, shocking and colourful stories of Suetonius are just that little bit more fun.
I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review